As a full time tennis coach and chair of Newcastle United’s LGBT+ supporters group United With Pride, Ian Pearson is a vocal advocate for inclusion and visibility in sport.
He is clearly motivated to make progress for players and fans alike, but that passion might feel like a far cry from the mental health issues he suffered as a youngster in the north east of England.
Growing up gay in Newcastle in the 90s was not easy. Any representation of LGBT+ people in mainstream consciousness were on the flamboyant end of the scale through the likes of Elton John or Julian Clary. For a sports-mad kid in a former mining community, they were the furthest thing from relatable, causing an inner conflict in Pearson that it would take years to resolve.
Section 28 – which prevented teachers from discussing LGBT+ issues – was in effect at the time, but his sexuality was not something Pearson would have wanted to talk about anyway. When it came down to it, he just did not want to be gay in the first place.
“I thought I had a tricky enough life – I was ginger, I wear glasses, and being gay was something that I saw as a character trait that I didn’t want,” the 38-year-old said.
“The circles I moved in, with the activities I was doing, I thought I was going to get bullied and picked on, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I wanted to be seen as a strong, archetypal male who always found a creative way forward. I didn’t see being gay as helping to contribute to that, I saw it as the opposite.
“I had a huge conflict with being gay and wanting to play sport, because I felt that the two things couldn’t mix. You couldn’t be in sport and be gay, there was nobody suggesting to me anything otherwise. When I looked at all my sporting role models like Tim Henman, Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan, they were all very straight-acting people.
“As a result, I became extremely depressed. I felt like I had to choose between the two, one or the other.
“I attempted suicide when I was 14, because I couldn’t accept my sexuality. At the time, when I attempted it and the school and my parents got involved, the reason I gave to them was stress of exams and other things. I didn’t tell anybody what the real cause of the problem was.
“I basically chose sport, I decided to deny my sexuality for ages, and throw myself into sport instead.”
Like many youngsters in the area, Pearson was brought up as a Newcastle United fan, but he also developed an interest in racket sports through his mother. He played badminton and table tennis, but it was tennis that really captured his imagination.
After his darkest hours, it was on the court that he built a platform to move forward with his life again.
It gave him a career too. A full time coaching role in tennis beckoned after leaving university, but even into his adult life a cloud hung over him because of his sexuality. It took Pearson until the age of 28 to come out to his parents, and it was a couple of years after that before he was comfortable enough within himself to talk about his sexuality in a professional context.
Thankfully everyone he opened up to reacted positively to the news, and Pearson has been able to move on to the next chapter of his life relatively comfortably. Looking back on what at the time was a struggle that had dominated half of his life, it seems sport both contributed to his stress, and helped give him a release from it.
“Throwing myself completely into sport was kind of a good thing, because it kept me sane,” Pearson explained.
“I got into tennis coaching full time because the tennis club was my little bubble, my happy place in my life. Sport saved my life. I feel like I’ve been trying to give back ever since.
“I didn’t come out in sport until I was 30, so we’re talking about 15 years, not far off half my life that I had huge mental health problems from living a conflicted life for so long. Once I did come out, and I had that weight lifted off my shoulders, I found that I was able to be much more successful as a coach. What changed? I met my husband. He gave me the confidence to be able to be comfortable at work.
“Working full time in sport, I always worried through my teens and my 20s that if parents found out I was gay, the old stigma around a gay man teaching kids would come up. Conversations in safe-guarding meetings led me to believe that people might perceive me as some sort of paedophile. I used to think I might have parents taking their kids out of class. That was the wrong perception, but it was all up there in my head.
“It was fear that stopped me coming out earlier. It was fear of what my business clients would think, fear of what my teammates would think. I know tennis is an individual sport, but we do still play as teams at club level and county level.
“A lot of the barriers weren’t actually from the people around me, I don’t think I’ve actually come across anybody in the sporting world that has reacted badly to it in the last 15 or 20 years, but at the time I believed in my own head that it would be a disaster if that happened to me.”
Part of what contributed to Pearson’s fears was a lack of support from governing bodies. While other sports have made efforts to send out welcoming messages of acceptance, more often than not in tennis, there is silence.
Just last month on Twitter, a Tik Tok video was retweeted on the ATP Tour account featuring a gay slur. Despite a barrage of comments asking them to take it down, it took a full day for the tweet to be deleted, and another 24 hours before an apology was issued.
The ATP is a global entity, but Pearson says he has faced similar issues from the Lawn Tennis Association at a nationwide level. From his experience, whenever he tries to move conversations on to inclusion, it is shrugged off and dismissed as a non-issue.
“If you go through individual sports and look, 0 per cent of male athletes are LGBTQ+ in most of them,” Pearson pointed out.
“People say there has been a lot of progress, but that is a sign of a problem. That is years and years of toxic masculinity that has geared people who are LGBTQ+ away from sport and into other disciplines instead. I think that’s a shame, because we know that sport is extremely good for your mental health as well as your physical health.
“As a community, we’ve had a mental health timebomb going on, and participation in sport is generally low. Stats from Pride Sports in 2016 said that only around a third of gay men regularly took part in sport, as opposed to double that for the general population. It’s not just what I feel I’ve seen on my personal journey, it’s backed up by statistics and studies.
“There’s a lot of denial that goes on, certainly in my own sport. There’s a lot of good work going on in football and rugby and other team sports, people see those sports as a priority. Obviously football is the national sport, it always gets the headlines and the most attention, and there’s a lot of good work going on even though there’s still a long way to go.
“Tennis though is in denial that there is an issue. People would accept it in the sport, if you think of the type of crowd you get at tennis they’re very polite, very reserved and there wouldn’t be an issue with a gay male player I am sure. However, there still aren’t any out. Why? There has to be a reason, and I still think it’s about the governing bodies – the LTA in the UK and the ATP Tour – doing nothing to promote visibility. They don’t set the right environment for male players, and it has got to come from them.
“Whenever I suggest things that other sports are doing to promote visibility and inclusion, I get told ‘we don’t need to do that’, or ‘you don’t want to do that because it’s divisive’. Other sports are much further down the line with the conversation around LGBTQ+ inclusion. Tennis is stuck in the past a little bit.
“The Tik Tok video situation just shows that at the very top, they haven’t cottoned on to the idea of LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport yet, they don’t see it as a thing. They see the women’s game and think ‘we’ve got loads of inclusion there’, so therefore it’s not a problem.”
While Pearson has been frustrated by the stumbling blocks put in place in tennis, he is pushing on full steam ahead in football as the head of United With Pride.
There were a couple of moments that led to his involvement with the group. One that particularly stands out is when he saw a rainbow flag at St James’ Park and thought it would be nice to see more of them at football grounds. Another was when an occasional attendee at matches, sat close to him in the stand, spent a match shouting anti-semitic and homophobic abuse at the pitch, which prompted Pearson to write to the club as he did not want to let it slide.
Eventually that led to him taking over as the club’s chair after it had been laying dormant for a year. United With Pride has been an opportunity for Pearson to lead, but also a chance for his perceptions and viewpoints to develop.
After joining in with homophobic chanting at matches before he came out in order to “fit in” with the crowd, he is certainly trying everything he can to make football matches a safe place for LGBT+ supporters now.
“I find with United With Pride, the club themselves back us and do a lot to try and improve the environment so that if somebody did come out, they would feel supported,” Pearson explained.
“There is visibility in the ground to show other people there are some gay people here as well, could you watch your language and not make homophobic comments. We try and educate where we can, we monitor online to make sure that any sort of homophobic behaviour is reported to the club and the police, and then followed up. That often doesn’t happen.
“We try to create role models who say it’s ok to be gay and involved in the sport. We do a flag display, and we also funded some Pride scarves, we got an initial 50 and they’re all gone.
“When the club launched United As One, which encompasses the disabled supporters’ association, the women’s football team and a memory cafe aimed at people who are forgetful and have Alzheimer’s and several other things under the diversity and equality brand, when they launched it they had a rainbow banner the entire length of the stadium. It read ‘Not everything is always black and white, United As One against prejudice’. We helped to create that display, and the campaign is up for a fan engagement award.
“We do the whole WhatsApp thing to keep each other up to date and informed as well, because we’re aware that a lot of people who have gotten involved have had similar mental health journeys to myself, and they appreciate a bit of company or someone who has gone on a similar journey to talk to.
“It has changed my attitudes towards the rainbow flag. I didn’t identify with it for the vast majority of my life, I thought what’s the point of that, why do we need to have it, we don’t need a Pride. The idea of going to a Pride just didn’t interest me at all until I was comfortable.
“That has changed, I went to my first Pride last year as the representative of United With Pride on the Northern Pride march, and we had Maggie Magpie from the football club, we had lots of the foundation staff, those people were doing the march too. It was the idea that it was for everyone, and not just for LGBTQ+ fans, we had support from other people and that made it really special. When we see all the reports and all the news items about racism and homophobia in football, it’s nice to think about the positive highlights like that.”
Sadly, all too often abusive comments can be found in responses to any posts on social media about equality and inclusion. United With Pride do their best to monitor Newcastle’s social media channels, and that is one area Pearson would like to see improvement on in the near future – difficult though that will undoubtedly be.
Another area he would like to see develop is getting a patron signed up to represent the supporters’ group, and in an ideal world he has a particular player in mind.
“One thing that would help us out greatly going forward is if social media platforms could get a grip on who can comment,” Pearson said.
“At the minute you can create an account in five minutes on Twitter, and if you get shut down you can just create another one. That’s a change that needs to be made, and it’s probably just about at it’s worst in sport in football. Any post that gets put on – and every club has the same issue, it really doesn’t matter if it’s a large Premier League club or not – about supporting their local Pride or changing to rainbow colours, they will get thousands of comments of a homophobic nature.
“That sort of thing is used to try and change the rhetoric and stall the movement, and that’s where the platform needs to be taken away from those people. If you want to comment, you should have to give some details so that if it is an illegal comment you will be handed over to the police.
“We will screenshot every homophobic comment, every profile and send it to the club and the police that are attached to the club simultaneously. The police log it as a malicious communication, and the club will log it to act upon. They will investigate it, and if the club can find the perpetrator, they will offer them an educational course or a stadium ban. From what I’m told, people usually take the ban, and the police will then act on it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time on Twitter, there is no way of tracing it.
“The next steps on the football side from our point of view is to get a patron. Stephen Fry is the patron for Proud Canaries at Norwich, and I want to get a current player, an athlete who is currently at the top of the game to be a patron for us. We want one of the team, preferably the captain Jamaal Lascelles who is a United As One ambassador, I would like him to be our patron to create a role model.
“If we can show that even somebody with a wife and two kids is happy to embrace this movement, that’s where the next step is helping to create an environment so that a professional male player can come out as gay comfortably. That I guess is the ultimate goal.
“I have always said United With Pride is a temporary project. Once the member hub starts balancing out with the general population, once we have more LGBTQ+ athletes coming out and being role models and it snowballs to the point we have fair representation in sport like we do in other areas, our work will be done. We won’t need to be waving that rainbow flag any more, we’ll just be turning up to the game and it won’t matter what background you’re from. We hope we’ll all be able to hang up our rainbow laces.”